Ahead of Iran’s entry, the SCO begs the Gulf’s attention
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a multilateral forum with a serious identity crisis. Russia is keen to shape it as a counterweight to NATO, while China aspires for greater regional connectivity to further its geopolitical interests through trade. The admission of Pakistan and India as full members of the SCO last June further blurred the bloc’s posturing as a security alliance of some sort.
Russia has been wooing Turkey to join the Eurasian Economic Union and the SCO. Turkey, a NATO member and an EU aspirant, is a dialogue partner of the SCO. But Ankara’s relations with Washington and Brussels continue to sour.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s defiant decision to buy the Russian S-400 Trimuf missile defense system is ringing alarm bells over the future sale of Western military technology, such as F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jets. For full SCO membership, it appears that Turkey will have to quit NATO.
Iran has awaited full SCO membership since 2008. Its elevation from observer state to the ninth member has been obstructed by UN Security Council (UNSC) sanctions. As the US mulls decertifying the nuclear deal by May 12, the next SCO Summit — scheduled for June in the Chinese city of Qingdao — will review Iran’s membership bid.
Given the prospects of the US quitting the multilateral nuclear deal, Moscow will continue to rescue Tehran from global isolation. China has already welcomed Iran’s full membership bid, as there are no prospects of fresh UNSC sanctions against Tehran.
The SCO Summit will be of particular interest for Middle Eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, neither of which has observer or dialogue-partner status. As per the SCO charter, each new entrant requires a consensus from existing members, so Iran will be able to block any future bid by Gulf states. Israel has already formally applied for membership, while Syria and Egypt seek observer status.
The golden days of SCO members’ relative ideological harmony seem to be over, as Pakistan and China have longstanding geographical disputes with India.
The golden days of SCO members’ relative ideological harmony seem to be over, as Pakistan and China have longstanding geographical disputes with India. At the foreign ministers’ summit on April 24, India singled itself out as all other members endorsed Beijing’s One Belt One Road initiative, which includes the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.
China and Russia have differing expectations from the SCO. To Russian President Vladimir Putin, it is a quasi-security platform aiming to bring together key nations from Southeast Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. It also compliments Moscow’s effort to create the Eurasian Economic Union, rivaling the EU in some form.
For China, it is a vehicle to pedal its soft-power ambitions via trade and commerce, while mitigating common threats posed by terrorism and separatism. For US ally India, it is about neutralizing Pakistan’s geopolitical outreach. Moscow understandably aspires to create links between the SCO and BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).
The unique feature of the SCO is joint military exercises held every two years. This year’s exercises in Russia will be the first ever to include the militaries of Pakistan and India. The aspect of military cooperation alone will benefit Iran enormously once admitted as a full member.
The emerging world order appears to be anything but tightly compartmentalized. The expanding SCO may neither parallel NATO nor the EU. So Middle Eastern countries may pursue proactive, preventive diplomacy to counter deepening Iranian-Russian cooperation.
Pursuing a policy of preserving the regional status quo, China is the top trade partner of the Gulf states. Since both Moscow and Beijing desire a greater role in the troubled region, Riyadh, Cairo and Ankara could seize the opportunity while preserving their ties with the West, especially the US.
— Naveed Ahmad is an investigative journalist and academic based in the Gulf, with a career in writing on diplomacy, security and governance. He won the Jefferson Fellowship in 2000, and the UNAOC Cross-Cultural Reporting Award in 2010.